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Saigon Bay

1407 Howe Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95825

(916) 922-1288

I recently spotted a new Vietnamese restaurant where I least expected it: on Howe Avenue, just south of Arden Way, across the street from an Outback Steakhouse. I consider the steady creep of ethnic food into chain-restaurant-lined boulevards a cause for rejoicing, not least because I now have somewhere to pick up takeout pho on my way home from yoga.

I have a little problem with pho obsession, in fact, so I was quite proud that when I tried Saigon Bay on a recent evening, I actually sampled other items on the menu. My personal sense of triumph was not mitigated by my tendency to gaze longingly at another table’s bowls of steaming, aromatic broth throughout dinner (nor by the fact that I returned to Saigon Bay a mere three days later for a tasty pho lunch).

The longing gaze, actually, may have had something to do with how slow our dinner was to reach us. The restaurant is new as of last fall, and its space obviously used to be a buffet-style place. The back of the restaurant is crammed with disused salad bars and glass-canopied food stations. Given the service, perhaps it should have remained a buffet. We actually received the bill before we ever got my entree. When I asked the server about it, she looked perplexed and asked, “What did you think you ordered?”

The answer was clay-pot catfish, with chunks of fish in caramel sauce. She returned with it in moments, and it was excellent. The sticky, complex, bittersweet sauce—salty with fish sauce and hot with chilies and black pepper—perfectly flavored the fish and rice. Too bad my husband had almost finished his dinner by then—quite a feat, as he had an enormous bowl of bun. Bun is thin rice noodles topped with crunchy, shredded vegetables and grilled pork and shrimp.

Waiting for both entrees and appetizers while our fellow diners had dish after dish delivered to their tables felt like being on the freeway when every lane seems to be going faster than your own. Still, our appetizers seemed to arrive as soon as they were ready. Our cha gio (egg rolls) were piping hot, with glassine, shatteringly crisp wheat-flour wrappers and juicy, deliciously flavorful pork. We also had fresh spring rolls, practically bursting with lettuce and rice noodles. Although they were a little scant on the promised grilled pork, these were good with the sweet peanut sauce.

The one thing that arrived right away was tea, a fruity herbal blend with ginger. One of the pleasant and distinctive aspects of Saigon Bay is its long tea menu. The sections for green, black, oolong and herbal teas have evocative descriptions of each. Sacramento has missed out a bit on the hip teahouse craze, but Saigon Bay makes an unexpectedly good stab at rivaling such places in its charmingly elaborate service. (You get a delicate cup; a pot; and a sleek, stainless-steel thermos of hot water.) However, the restaurant’s gaudy blue and chartreuse walls, glittery red and purple tables, and abundance of fake plants are a far cry from such temples of tea.

There’s also a huge selection of sweet drinks, with tapioca pearls optional. Not in our case, though; my husband ordered his mango drink with pearls, but it came without. On our later lunch visit, he got something called a “coconut blast” and adamantly reminded the server not to forget the pearls. The server didn’t, but he took his sweet time getting it to us.

The service on our second visit started out ominously, as the server warned us to “bear with” him, and built into a comedy of errors. We weren’t the only ones, either, unlike the last time. As I looked around, the most common problem seemed to be that people had either their pho or the plate of chilies, herbs and bean sprouts that goes with it, but not both at once. My pho arrived first, and the add-ins afterward. It was nicely aromatic, with a big mound of saw-leaf herb and Thai basil adding flavor to the greaseless, meaty broth. It was a good 10 minutes, though, before my husband’s beef lo lac (slightly dull-tasting sautéed beef over rice) arrived—without any utensils, which took another few minutes.

Afterward, it was another epic struggle to get the bill. Unasked, one very sweet female server said she had taken the coconut drink off the bill, because our food had taken so long. It was a lovely gesture—but then she delivered someone else’s much higher bill. Once we had the right check and handed over a credit card, the other server (her brother, it turned out) noticed that we hadn’t been charged for the coconut drink and restored it. His sister intervened, apologizing. This sibling rivalry cleared up, he ran our card for the full bill and gave us back the price of the drink in cash, leaving me profoundly confused about what and how to tip. Put it on the card? Leave the cash?

By that point, it was more funny than annoying, but I’m perplexed about Saigon Bay. The food was delicious, especially the bun and the cha gio, but I’m not sure I have the stamina for the service, especially as the trend on our visits was not toward improvement. Maybe the answer is takeout.